How worried should we be?

Steven Shapin

  • BuyCommand and Control by Eric Schlosser
    Penguin, 632 pp, £25.00, September 2013, ISBN 978 1 84614 148 5

‘Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.’ That’s known as Murphy’s Law. It’s invoked in all sorts of settings, but its natural modern home is in engineering, where it is generally attributed to a remark made around 1950 by an aeronautical engineer called Ed Murphy, who was working on the design of rocket sleds at Edwards Air Force Base in California. In the mid-1950s, when Murphy’s Law wasn’t yet widely known under that name, Admiral Lewis L. Strauss, reflecting on the political and administrative troubles afflicting him, suggested that ‘a new law of knowledge’ be recognised and called Strauss’s Law after him: ‘If anything bad can happen, it probably will.’ At the time, Strauss was chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, which had the responsibility for producing and maintaining America’s nuclear weapons, and the things that can go wrong with the control of such weapons are as bad as it gets.

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